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Telling the Stories of China’s “Illegal Children”: Shen Yang and Roseann Lake in Conversation

By Shen Yang Roseann Lake

“Excess-birth” or “illegal” children (usually girls) were those born to a family who already had a child during the years when China’s one-child policy, in force from the 1980s to 2015, restricted a woman’s births to one. Traditional preferences for boys meant that many tried to circumvent the law to produce a son and heir; many of these excess births resulted in forced abortions, abandonment, and even foreign adoption. However, numerous second, third, and even fourth daughters did survive in China and, as Shen Yang (herself an excess-birth child) relates, grew up to suffer the consequences of their illegal status.

Two effects of the one-child policy are a disproportionate number of males to females in the population and better educational opportunities for Chinese girls in families in which they were the only child. Both these factors have made it more difficult for men to find a wife in recent decades: better-educated women challenge traditional stereotypes and have nontraditional expectations when they choose a mate. The derogatory term “leftover women” is a criticism of those in their late twenties and thirties who have been unwilling or unable to marry and have a family. It is a term widely used not just in the Chinese media but also by Chinese government organizations worried about the number of unmarried men.

In this conversation, Roseann Lake and Shen Yang discuss how and why they decided to write their recent books, Lake’s Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World's Next Superpower (Norton, 2018) and Shen Yang’s More Than One Child: Memoirs of an Illegal Daughter (translated by Nicky Harman, Balestier, 2021).


Roseann Lake (RL): How did you find the courage and motivation to tell your story, Shen Yang?

Shen Yang (SY): Growing up as an illegal, excess-birth child, I was not entitled to a normal childhood, and I went through a lot of negative experiences: from being separated from my biological family to being mistreated and growing up without a sense of belonging. Then along the way I discovered I was not alone: I met several other excess-birth children and heard their stories and traumas. All these experiences kept accumulating, and as I grew up and became an avid reader, I discovered that nobody had ever written about excess-birth children.

Writers have focused almost exclusively on the “One-Child Generation,” talking at length about the social pressures of being an only child or about the gender imbalance issue, while other authors have denounced forced abortions and the abandonment of baby girls. Yet nobody has addressed the issue of the millions of babies who survived—but in the shadows, separated from their families, forever scarred by their past.

“As an illegal excess-birth child myself, I have to bear witness.”

Nowadays, whenever I ask the younger generation about China’s family planning policy or about excess children, they have no idea what I’m talking about. But we can’t really blame them, because there is no mention of this topic in school, nor are there relevant books to read. I find this really terrifying, because as time goes by, this unique part of history will disappear without a trace.

History must not be forgotten or erased, so as an illegal excess-birth child myself, I have to bear witness. I have to make myself heard and record the truth on behalf of the enormous yet invisible community of my peers. I have to say what it felt like, physically and mentally, growing to adulthood as an excess child, the difficulties we faced, and how we lived. Otherwise, our entire generation will be forever buried in the abyss of history, and the same mistakes will eventually be repeated.


SY: And what inspired you to write Leftover in China, Roseann?

RL: The women I worked with at a television station in Beijing inspired me to write this book. I thought it was unfair that they were being berated for not having spouses, especially since they were just starting to build their careers. Despite having been the first generation of women in their families to attend college, attain graduate degrees, speak more than one language, and work in a big city—and at an international news network, no less—all of their accomplishments seemed to pale in comparison to the fact that they would be going to see their families over Chinese New Year without any signs that they had found a potential life partner.  


SY: What can people expect from your book about leftover women?

RL: A more nuanced understanding of China, a sense of the human impact of the one-child policy and how, ironically, despite the infanticide and abortion of some 32 million baby girls, it has paved the way for a remarkably accomplished generation of women who are rewriting the timelines for young adulthood and pushing back against the traditional demands of a country whose cultural attitudes have not changed as quickly or as vigorously as its economy. 


SY: What are the lessons you hope readers will take away from Leftover in China?

RL: China is an economic superpower and home to the largest population of women (and of men) on the planet, and yet the average Westerner has only a superficial understanding of the country. My book is packed with anecdotes about Chinese traditions, superstitions, culture, and history, as well as little-known background information about the evolution of romantic love (as a reason for marriage) in China and the chilling origins of the one-child policy.


RL: Shen Yang, your book, More Than One Child, was published earlier this year. What is the significance of this timing?

SY: I have been working on this memoir for around ten years, and the fact that it was published this year, when China has changed its family planning policy once again, to encourage couples to have three children, is serendipitous. Thirty years ago, a family with three children was considered the scum of society. You can read plenty of examples of this stigma in my book. And yet now, in 2021, a family with three children is praised as a role model. It is really ironic.

My hope is that my book will raise awareness about the need for governments, wherever they are, to genuinely respect people’s lives instead of forcing misguided birth-control policies on them. And I also hope that more and more excess children will come out and bravely share their unique stories with the world.


RL: How is the situation of parents in China today different from what it was when you were growing up? Are there things that haven’t changed?

SY: What has changed now is that there is a new policy, released on May 31, 2021, stating that any couple can have up to three children. What has not changed is that the government continues to use the law to control women’s bodies. For example, last September, they released additional guidelines aimed at restricting abortions carried out for “nonmedical” reasons. So, in the past, they forced women to have an abortion when they were carrying an excess child. Now, with the new policy, they are making it difficult for women to get an abortion, in an attempt to pressure them to have more children.

“Leaders need to think long and hard about why people are no longer as keen to have children.”

There has been some resistance to the new policies. I have heard complaints even from local government officials, one of whom said: “We are really in a dilemma. I mean, the new policy is really difficult to implement. You can get a baby out of a woman’s uterus, but you cannot force them to put one inside.”

Governments have no business regulating how many children people have. I really look forward to the day when people can choose freely how many children they want and the government focuses on creating an environment where families (with or without children) can thrive.


SY: What do you think of this new three-child policy, Roseann?

RL: The best part about it is women’s reactions to it. It is becoming clear that women will resist being told what to do with their bodies. Reproductive rights are not a light switch that can be turned off and flicked back on at a whim. That is proving a hard pill to swallow for officialdom, but it is what the statistics are showing. Most couples in China are not rushing to have a third child. Many are deliberating about whether they want two, or one, or even any at all. This is going to have huge implications for the country going forward, especially if the birth rate does not increase, as is currently the case. Leaders need to think long and hard about why people are no longer as keen to have children, and what they might be able to do to make parenthood easier. This means addressing issues like the cost of living, education, migration, access to insurance, and fertility treatment, as well as things like egg freezing, abolishing the “social compensation fees” imposed on single mothers, and legalizing surrogacy, especially for women with a medical need for one. It is a long list. 

I think it is equally important to note that while the new law is being heralded as a positive development for women, it also puts greater pressure on them. A Chinese friend of mine who lives in the US and has two kids was recently joking with me that her parents now want her to hurry up and have more, because “Anyone in China can now have three.”


RL: Finally, could you tell us about the present situation of excess-birth children in China, Shen Yang?

SY: When I was working on More Than One Child, I spent a fair amount of time on the web searching for books, publications, and news about this, but since the topic is still taboo, there was barely any information about it.

Many excess-birth children grew up registered with false names and birthdays, and in households not their own (in order to conceal them from the authorities), as I did myself. As far as I know, almost none of us have been able to change our documents to reflect our real identities. By now, we have had that fake persona for a very long time, and every single official document and record we own is based on that fake household registration. Even though that does not really affect our daily lives, it makes many of us feel deeply uncomfortable. Why can’t we have our own real identity like our sisters or brothers, or any other normal kid?

“I hope my story will encourage and inspire more and more excess-birth children to step out.”

In the process of growing up, excess-birth children have faced unbearable disappointments. These have torn us apart and inflicted wounds that will never heal, and that still cause us pain. This is unfortunate, but it has also allowed us to develop extraordinary abilities—our powers of observation, our memories, our ability to heal ourselves. Suffering has enriched us.

Of course, there must be excess-birth children who never recovered from their childhood trauma, but I want to believe that all of them are out there somewhere in the universe, living the peaceful, happy lives that they deserve.

I hope my story will encourage and inspire more and more excess-birth children to step out and tell the world their stories. I believe everyone on this earth comes with an unseen history, but since we all have our own voices, we can write that history down and record our own insights and experiences. Writing opens our minds and enables us to discover ourselves. It offers an authentic voice for the world to hear. And a reality that has been written down and described is no longer ephemeral—it is a lasting record.


Related Reading:

Sexism and Science Fiction: Natascha Bruce and Nicky Harman Interview Tang Fei

Singular and Universal: Stories of Parents and Children

Banned Chinese Writers

Published Nov 9, 2021   Copyright 2021 Shen YangRoseann Lake

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